Terry Allen & the Panhandle Mystery Band
That one of America’s most genuinely curve-leading artists should come from a genre as hidebound as country music would be surprising if that person weren’t Texas original Terry Allen, who carries around contradictions with ease, jingling them like loose change.
Long before the digital-age neologism existed, Allen was the consummate multi-hyphenate. A pioneer in the outlaw country movement of the 1970s (and a bellwether of the alt-country to come decades later), Allen has made a dozen albums that have been cherrypicked by everyone from Guy Clark to David Byrne and Sturgill Simpson. Meanwhile, he’s painted and sculpted his way into major museum collections from MoMA to MOCA. “You have five senses,” he told The Washington Post Magazine. “But you don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘Today I just smell.’”
Aside from a fascinating experimental period three decades ago, Allen’s albums usually have something of the caustic satire of Randy Newman, something of the worn wisdom of John Prine, something of the antic tall tales of author Charles Portis, and something else, irreducible to external references—perhaps what Pitchfork described as Allen’s “sour optimism” in its review of Just Like Moby Dick, his first new album since Bottom of the World in 2013.
The album was issued by Paradise of Bachelors, the North Carolina archival label that has also reissued Allen’s groundbreaking first two albums, Juarez (1975) and Lubbock (On Everything) (1979), which AllMusic called “one of the finest country albums of all time.” Its spiritual successor, Just Like Moby Dick offers wry, wrinkled, hilarious, and heartbreaking tales of Harry Houdini, pirates and vampires, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allen’s deft idiomatic language makes the most outrageous themes resonate like lost classics, and he comes to Big Ears with his Panhandle Mystery Band of seasoned fellow-travelers on a winding, unmarked road.